Friday, March 9, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#4

[For the previous entry on the countdown, click here.]

#4.Elmer Cowley

Young merchant Elmer Cowley is so preoccupied with "public opinion," is so self-conscious about his family seeming "queer" (i.e. odd) in the eyes of the townspeople, that he unintentionally transforms into a figure to gawk at.  When chased out of Cowley and Son's at gunpoint, a traveling salesman pronounces Elmer (who is ashamed of his bumpkin father's lack of business acumen) "crazy."  The sentiment is echoed (after listening to Elmer rail about his parents' shabby habiliment, and the "queer jumble" of goods cluttering the family store) by no less an authority than Mook the half-wit (a man given to conversing with barnyard animals).

Still friendless after a year of living in town, the insecure Elmer wallows in a sense of ostracism.  For all his concerns about being marked off as different, though, Elmer proves a typical resident of Winesburg, Ohio in his inability to express himself.  Like many a character in Sherwood Anderson's story collection, Elmer is denaturalized by a frustrating inarticulateness.  On more than one occasion, Elmer tries "to declare his determination not to be queer" to George Willard, but stumbles each time in the attempt.  In a climactic confrontation, Elmer aims to make an impassioned speech to George, yet only manages to spurt "I'll be washed, ironed, and starched"--the despised catch-phrase his father Ebenezer always spouts.  With this, Elmer is sent into a fit of rage; he snarls and flails his arms in the air before proceeding to pummel the innocent George.  Jumping aboard a departing train, Elmer says to himself in the story's final line: "I guess I showed him I ain't queer."  The author Anderson, of course, has just demonstrated the exact opposite about Elmer in this tale well-fortified with irony.

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